BEIJING/TAIPEI China's top official in charge of Taiwan ties will make a landmark visit to the island this week to try to woo Taiwanese who remain suspicious about a pending trade pact as well as meet a senior figure from the pro-independence opposition.
Zhang Zhijun, director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, will be the first head of the body to visit the self-ruled and democratic island, where defeated Nationalist forces fled after losing a civil war to China's Communists in 1949.
His trip from Wednesday to Saturday will focus not on the affluent capital Taipei but on the poorer middle and south, which have benefited less from trade with China and where pro-independence sentiment can run deep.
While China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and has never ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control, relations have improved markedly since China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008.
China's charm offensive with Taiwan stands in contrast to its ties with several countries in Asia where bitter territorial rows have flared over maritime boundaries. China has also recently denounced people in Chinese-run Hong Kong, where hundreds of thousands have been pushing for greater democracy.
Zhang's main talks in Taipei will be with Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi. He will not meet Ma, who has never held talks with senior Chinese officials as president.
But Zhang's visit does include a meeting with opposition party stalwart and mayor of the heavily pro-independence southern port city of Kaohsiung, Chen Chu.
While Chen has previously visited China and met Zhang there, spearheading efforts by the Democratic Progressive Party to engage with Beijing, such high level meetings in Taiwan itself with opposition figures are almost unheard of.
"This will be an opportunity for Taiwan's opposition and people who don't like the mainland to get to know Zhang Zhijun, to listen to him and understand that China wants to help, not harm, Taiwan's economy," said Zheng Zhenqing, assistant professor at Tsinghua University's Institute of Taiwan Studies in Beijing.
Chinese state media has said Zhang would also talk to small- and medium-sized industries which have been hit by competition from low-cost China and engage with Taiwanese youth, few of whom feel much cultural connection to China today.
His trip comes at a sensitive time.
Protesters occupied Taiwan's parliament and mounted mass demonstrations over a three-week period starting in March in anger at the trade pact, which will open various sectors in both economies.
The opposition calls the pact a threat to Taiwanese industry and fears it could open the door to Chinese influence on the island's politics.
Signed a year ago, it remains stalled in Taiwan's parliament and legislators are set to discuss it during a session which overlaps with Zhang's visit.
Advocates including Ma say it is a vital step to normalizing ties with Beijing and will provide jobs and raise living standards.
TRADE NO PANACEA
Nevertheless, booming trade worth nearly $200 billion last year has not brought progress on political reconciliation or reduced military readiness on either side. Many Taiwanese, especially in the south, fear autocratic China's designs for their free-wheeling island.
In 2008, a vice president of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, a separate semi-official body that handled cross-strait ties in the absence of official contacts, was attacked by independence activists while in Tainan, Taiwan's former capital and which is located close to Kaohsiung.
"We expect at least a dozen separate groups will come out to protest in Kaohsiung," said Shinichi Chen, general secretary of the pro-independence South Taiwan Society.
"Our demands are very simple: we want Zhang to acknowledge that Taiwan is a nation that belongs to the Taiwanese, and that Taiwan's future will be decided by the Taiwanese."
While Chinese President Xi Jinping said in October that a political solution cannot be put off forever, Ma has repeatedly said the time is not right for political talks.
Tsinghua's Zheng said Zhang's goal was more about setting up a regular channel for high-level dialogue, and that with presidential elections in Taiwan just two years away he would avoid touching on the prickly subject of political talks.
"There's no way to resolve these sensitive subjects at the moment. But perhaps in the future this channel might be used for communication on the matter," he said.
China's efforts to be friendly toward Taiwan were underscored last week by comments from its number four leader, Yu Zhengsheng, who said Beijing respected Taiwan's social system and values.
In contrast, China has branded as illegal the campaign for more democracy in Hong Kong, where many residents are concerned that civil liberties are being eroded.
"The difference between Hong Kong and Taiwan is night and day," said Bruce Jacobs, a Taiwan expert at Australia's Monash University, pointing to Hong Kong's almost complete reliance on China for even basics like water.
"Taiwan has its own army and 150 km (93 miles) of sea separating it from the mainland. The divisions between Taiwan and China run really deep and would clearly get in the way of any potential political agreement between the two."
(Editing by Dean Yates)